Ron Brown, a University of Nebraska assistant football coach has generated controversy for 1) opposing proposals in a Nebraska town to ban discrimination against gay people 2) doing so on the grounds that homosexual activity is immoral and 3) basing his political view on starkly Christian grounds: “The question I have for you all is, like Pontius Pilate, what are you going to do with Jesus? Ultimately, if you don’t have a relationship with Him, and you don’t have a Bible-believing mentality, really, anything goes …. At the end of the day, it matters what God thinks most.”
Over at Grantland, a fellow named Charles P. Pierce writes, “There are ongoing arguments about Brown’s right to say what he feels, and what is perceived to be the city’s — and the university’s — commitment to the equal enforcement of the laws for their gay citizens and their gay students,” while admitting “the laws in question ban actual discrimination. They do not ban approval of discrimination.” This is confused in several ways: a public employee can advocate for or against any law. Such advocacy does not deny anyone equal protection- even if one somehow wanted to argue that equal protection requires a ban on job discrimination, an individual public employee is free to disagree. Moreover, this law at the time Brown spoke was only under consideration at the time, and at a different level of government than the one for which Brown works- it would be odd for the state of Nebraska to punish someone for opposing a law that it itself does not have on the books.
Pierce’s real point is cultural, not legal. Ordinances like the ones in Nebraska may not always pass yet, but there are other ways of asserting one’s dominance, one’s right to define acceptable discourse. Pierce is heartened by the cultural muscle of pro-gay rights pressure, but it bothers him that someone refuses to respond. Pierce writes “I do not believe that any action should be taken against Ron Brown based on what he says….But somebody should take him aside and explain to him that the world is changing around him and that, for everyone’s sake, it’s time for him to adjust or get out of the way.” Brown has openly dared opponents to make a martyr of him; Pierce would much prefer that he and those who think like him simply take stock of the correlation of cultural forces, back down and not let it come to that.
“The laws he is opposing are purely secular ones, and if Brown thinks he can justify his stated beliefs through the Gospels, he hasn’t read them closely enough….Nobody is asking him to abandon his faith. They’re just asking him to grow within it…” If Pierce believes his Biblical interpretation and political philosophy are superior to Brown’s, he is free to do so. Why doesn’t he then ask someone to “take Brown aside” and debate theology or secularism with him? He doesn’t want to make that argument. He wants to assert the power to define it as settled, and any further discussion not on his terms as illegitimate. People can keep their faith, as long as Charles P. Pierce gets to define what it means to grow in that faith- in other words, to define what their faith means, what faith must mean.
What does it mean? Naturally, “to take the essential message of love that is the heart of the Gospels and to apply it generally, as all Christians are called to do, and without any legalistic nonsense about ‘loving the sinner but hating the sin.'” As one moves to a broader level of principle, disagreement becomes less likely. Both Coach Brown and Charles P. Pierce would claim to believe in “the essential message of love that is the heart of the Gospels.” It is usually the meaning of love, liberty, justice, etc. that is in question.
Pierce, for instance, apparently believes it is impossible to love the sinner but hate the sin. Or does he? It’s very easy for Pierce to say this in the case of homosexual activity, because he doesn’t believe this is sinful anyway. But there are things he himself condemns- homophobia, our “bizarrely militarized” sports culutre, Ronald Reagan’s inadequate response to AIDS, the “tough-guy macho culture of football” in this article alone; in another, the decision of a high school baseball team to refuse to face a team that includes a girl. Does he think we cannot love the people responsible for these various sins without also loving their sins?
In addressing the legislators, Brown told them they were in the situation of Pontius Pilate, facing the question of what they were going to do with Jesus. His point (which I don’t agree with at all) was that, just as Pilate couldn’t be neutral on the question of Jesus, the legislature could not be neutral; a stand in favor of the anti-discrimination law was a stand against Jesus.
Rather than argue that the legislature isn’t in anything like Pilate’s position, though, Pierce appears to argue that Pilate himself wasn’t really responsible for his decision- an argument the Gospels mock Pilate himself for making. “[Brown] should go back to his Bible,” Pierce writes, “and remember that Pilate was forced to provide a secular execution to appease the local religious authorities.” So you see, it’s religious people, not secular ones, who go and mess everything up. But Pilate had Jesus executed as “King of the Jews”- a political threat. And Rome seems to have found Christians plenty threatening.